How do we reframe the conversation of sustainability?
In 1996, my Master’s Thesis at the University of Calgary explored the concept of sustainability. It included terms in the glossary such as biodiversity crisis, ecological sustainability, ecosystem management, landscape and resource approaches and Western value systems. I look back on this work and ask myself, have we made any progress in understanding what we are trying to sustain?
In the early 1990s, when writing the thesis, global warming and climate change were not part of the mainstream narrative. Nor were the scientific warnings that humanity would be approaching the limits of a finite planet by the 21st century. Perhaps this was because we were focused on a conventional, unsustainable expansionist worldview in which nature was valued as a resource for human use. Today, the dualist set of values that separate humans from the natural world, normalized in modern society, is devastatingly affecting the planet’s ability to support humanity.
While the concept of sustainability has been around for a very long time, it was in 1987 when the Bruntland report coined the term “sustainable development,” giving impetus to economic conditions and opportunities to protect the environment and meet the needs of current and future generations. Within this context, balancing the social, economic, and ecological dimensions of sustainable development was deemed necessary to address the problematic development trajectory that humanity was pursuing.
However, for the past three decades, economic valuation systems focused on short-term growth and profit maximization have needed to catch up in accounting for the value of a healthy planet and the well-being of humanity over the long term. The result is that we are currently pushing up against the limits of a finite planet with only a tiny window of time to correct our trajectory and embrace a world in which we wish to live now and in the future.
Where do we go from here? While the political dimension of sustainability is not highlighted in the literature, it is an essential consideration if we are serious about pursuing sustainability as a framework for the future. The political decisions made today about safeguarding biodiversity, ecosystem health and species at risk need to be actionable locally to avoid the devastating outcome of the sixth extinction at the global level.
As many have suggested, there is still time to turn things around, but it will require transformative change – a paradigm shift. This is not without complications, as many societies and institutions globally and locally have different understandings of sustainability as a concept and how it should be achieved. Let’s face it: sustainable development is a muddy term open to interpretation. Fundamentally, questions of what we value and what we want to sustain play an important role in understanding and improving our planetary conditions.
In December 2022, countries gathered in Montreal at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) to finalize a global agreement to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. In Canada, only two provinces, Quebec and British Columbia, have committed to protecting 30% of their provincial land base by 2030.
The nearly million square kilometres of B.C is not mapped correctly or understood. How can we make good decisions about habitat protection and biodiversity if we don’t know what is happening in the landscape holistically? To address this concern, the province of British Columbia allocated $38 million in April 2023 to support a LiDAR data-based mapping program of landscapes for all of B.C. While a more modern mapping tool is helpful, it is only as good as the following political decisions. For too long, B.C. has prioritized timber supply over other values on the land base, such as ecosystem protection or species at risk.
If we are serious about meeting the goals of biodiversity, ecosystem resiliency, species at risk and mitigating climate change, we must rethink land use decisions. Adopting a landscape approach that prioritizes biodiversity and ecosystem health requires better communications across governments, ministries, communities, and industries. In other words, we need to include the right people at the table.
The recently signed historic, tripartite agreement between the BC government, Federal government, and First Nations leaders, valid until 2030 and supported by $1 billion in joint funding, will hopefully transform how land use decisions are made in B.C. The agreement includes commitments to conserve enough old-growth forests “to support the recovery of 250 spotted owls and restore 140,000 hectares of degraded habitat within the next two years” (The Narwhal). This agreement is significant and timely in supporting commitments to protect 30 percent of the land base in B.C. by 2030. It also highlights the importance of money, partnerships, and political will in transforming the direction of biodiversity and ecosystem health decisions.
In 2023, I am hopeful that we are finally on the path to overhauling how land is managed in B.C., and a new collaborative framework will result in a paradigm shift that values nature conservation.
Retired Associate Professor, Tourism Management Department
Faculty of Adventure, Culinary, Arts and Tourism
Thompson Rivers University